JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The tiny kingdom of Lesotho appealed Tuesday to the United States and Britain to save it from economic strangulation by a virtual blockade by South Africa.
Chief Leabua Jonathan, the prime minister of Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, sent urgent messages to President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accusing South Africa of imposing a "total embargo" on all goods, including food, medicine and fuel. He asked for their help in reopening the border.
In Maseru, the capital which is about 220 miles south of here, grocery stores were running out of food, gasoline stations were pumping their tanks dry and long lines of migrant workers, tourists, hospital patients and others were waiting to enter South Africa. Freight trains in and out of the country were halted, and cars and trucks were crossing the border at the rate of one an hour--when they were not being turned back.
South Africa, according to Jonathan, is attempting to punish Lesotho for complaining to the U.N. Security Council about a December raid, apparently by South African commandos, in which nine people were killed in Lesotho. He said Pretoria is also trying to demonstrate the economic dependence of neighboring black-ruled countries on South Africa as talk grows again around the world of pressuring Pretoria with sanctions.
'Not Knuckling Under'
"They are punishing us for not knuckling under to them," Desmond Sixishe, Lesotho's minister of information, told newsmen in Maseru. "The U.N. condemnation outraged them. Apparently they thought they could get away with murder, literally with murder. . . . They seem to think we are a bunch of cheeky blacks who must be whipped back into line."
Virtually all of landlocked Lesotho's imports and exports pass through South Africa, and about half of its gross national product is accounted for by 140,000 Lesotho citizens working in South Africa, mostly as miners.
As the Lesotho Cabinet met in emergency session Tuesday, government officials in Maseru warned that the country of 1.5 million people was already at a standstill just two weeks after South Africa imposed the frontier controls, and soon will begin to suffer seriously.
The government has commandeered all fuel, Sixishe said, and arrangements are being made for an airlift of vital medicines and possibly food.
In London, a British Foreign Office spokesman said that Thatcher has instructed the British ambassador to South Africa to intercede on behalf of Lesotho, which is a member of the Commonwealth. Chester A. Crocker, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said on his departure after a three-day visit here that he had discussed the issue with South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha.
Botha Denies Blockade
Botha, denying that South Africa is blockading Lesotho, said in Cape Town that his government acted two weeks ago to prevent guerrillas of the outlawed African National Congress from moving between the two countries or smuggling arms into South Africa from Lesotho.
"Terrorists are crossing the border," Botha said. "If they keep on crossing the border, then we have no option but to enforce stricter border control measures. That is a duty this government has to its citizens."
But Botha said the Lesotho Cabinet agreed late Tuesday to talks today or Thursday about a joint security committee that South Africa has long wanted. He suggested that this might bring a compromise reopening of the border.
Crocker, the Reagan Administration's top African policy official, who was concluding his first visit here in nearly a year, rejected calls for greater U.S. economic sanctions as a means to end South African apartheid.